ALBANY — A state assemblywoman running for Senate in an upcoming special election is under fire from two women over her handling of their harassment complaints during her time as chief counsel for the Senate Dems.
The women say Shelley Mayer, a Yonkers Democrat, did little to help despite being asked directly to intervene in their situations.
The two — Julia Lilkendey, who still works for the Senate, and Shana Wittenwyler, who left in 2011 — outlined to the Daily News the harassment they say they endured and how they believe Mayer and other Senate Democratic officials at the time failed them.
Lilkendey said she’d gone to Mayer for help after her male supervisor sexually harassed and stalked her. Wittenwyler said her boss called her offensive names and once tried to hit her.
“Mayer didn’t do anything for me,” Wittenwyler said. “She put me in more danger.”
Mayer’s reps and at least three former Senate colleagues don’t deny the women were harassed. But they insist Mayer as counsel followed proper Senate protocol by referring the matters to human resources or then-Secretary of the Senate Angelo Aponte.
“The harassment these women endured was and is unacceptable, and Shelley followed proper procedure by forwarding the information she had to the proper authority, who wrongly refused to take meaningful action,” Mayer campaign spokesman Doug Forand said. “As much as Shelley advocated for these victims, the authority to discipline staff who were not part of the counsel’s office rested with the secretary of the Senate.”
But Lilkendey and Wittenwyler aren’t buying it.
While making it clear they don’t blame Mayer alone, both said as the top female official in the Senate majority at the time, she should have been more aggressive in making sure they were protected.
“She was in a position to help all of us and didn’t,” Wittenwyler said. Both women noted Mayer could have gone to Senate leadership or pushed for their harassers to be suspended or removed.
“People don’t know how scary it is to report sexual harassment at work,” Lilkendey said.
Lilkendey said she came forward after seeing Mayer was running in a critical April 24 special election for an open state Senate seat from Westchester County that could determine which party controls the chamber.
She believed it hypocritical that Mayer, who was elected to the Assembly in 2012, was touting her support of a pro-woman agenda.
Republicans had previously criticized Mayer for publicly supporting then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver when he was ripped for his handling of sexual harassment incidents involving then-powerful Brooklyn Assemblyman Vito Lopez.
Hired by the Senate Republicans in 2005, Lilkendey was moved to the Senate media services department in late 2008, and was kept on when the Dems took over the majority in 2009.
In March of that year, her boss became Carlos Gonzalez, the son of former state Sen. Efrain Gonzalez, a disgraced Bronx Democrat who went to federal prison on corruption charges in 2010.
Carlos Gonzalez swung into the headlines himself in 2012, when The News reported he and his wife, Janis, an office manager for the Senate Dems, were running a side business that held erotic dance events for swingers. From the start, Lilkendey said, Gonzalez put her through hell. What began as unrelenting sexual harassment eventually turned into years of stalking, she said.
Lilkendey provided The News with a host of emails, texts and secretly recorded audio to back up her claims.
One email sent to her from Gonzalez’s Senate address on March 26, 2009, just weeks after he became her boss, contained the header: “Now check out this photo. AMAZING ART!”
When Lilkendey opened the message, it contained a picture of a naked woman from the back.
When the surprised staffer emailed back asking if the woman was dipped in chocolate, Gonzalez responded, “Only you would know. She looks like you.”
He also told her “he had a dream about having sex with me” and later that she looked “like sex,” Lilkendey said.
Gonzalez frequently invited her to parties he said would be good for networking. She never attended, but learned later they were swinger events.
She said the harassment eventually turned into obsession as Gonzalez left lengthy voice mails and sent texts often demanding to know where she was and threatening work retaliation if she didn’t call back.
Lilkendey confided to a co-worker, Matthew Kulvicki, who was hired by the Senate Dems as productions director in her department in April 2009.
Kulvicki — who later dated Lilkendey for three years — decided to talk to Democratic higherups on her behalf.
Senate sexual harassment policy at the time suggested that those who felt harassed talk to their supervisors or others in the chain of command. If they did not feel comfortable doing so, they could take their complaints directly to the Senate personnel office or the secretary of the Senate, who at the time was Aponte.
Lilkendey said she was too scared to approach officials on her own, and Kulvicki told The News he didn’t want to reach out to Aponte, who was seen as having a close relationship with Gonzalez.
Several people he trusted in the Senate suggested he reach out to Mayer, who had a reputation of being fair.
Kulvicki met with Mayer in her office on Oct. 29, 2010, just three days before a crucial election that wound up flipping the majority back to the Republicans.
He said he told Mayer what his co-worker was going through, and that he did not believe she could get fair treatment from Aponte.
Mayer, Kulvicki said, told him she’d like to help — after the election. He said while he was “shell-shocked by the lack of reaction,” he later told Lilkendey he believed something would get done.
Mayer, he said, told him to have Lilkendey call her, but she never did out of fright.
Lilkendey said Mayer never reached out to her.
A Mayer source claims the counsel reached out both to Lilkendey and Kulvicki, but never heard back.
Mayer’s rep and three former senior Senate Democratic officials argued that as chief counsel, her role was not to investigate sexual harassment complaints.
Two Mayer colleagues at the time said she brought up the issue with Aponte. Aponte told The News he has no recollection of that. Even if such a discussion occurred, Lilkendey and Kulvicki questioned why that seemingly was the end of Mayer’s involvement.
No formal action was ever taken against Gonzalez, who left the state payroll in January 2011. He and his wife are currently listed as production directors for Bliss Cruises, which is geared toward swingers.
Gonzalez on Thursday refused to discuss the allegations. “I have absolutely no comment,” he said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous.”
One person Lilkendey was speaking with while going through her ordeal was Wittenwyler, who was hired in December 2009 by the Senate Democrats as a photographer — and had her own problems with her boss, El-Wise Noisette.
Wittenwyler told The News that Noisette verbally abused her.
She said Noisette, who is black, referred to her as “white devil c--t” and “whore.” “He told me I was taking jobs from black men, that I had no business doing this job," Wittenwyler said.
She said after one testy meeting in April 2010, Noisette tried to hit her with a backhanded slap while angrily putting on his coat. He missed and left the room.
Noisette denied to The News any such incident happened.
“She went and fabricated some crazy story,” said Noisette, now a photo editor for the state teachers union. “That never ever, ever, ever happened. I mean no way. I don’t put my hands on women. I don’t get into altercations and stuff like that.”
Wittenwyler outlined the incident at the time in a report to Senate human resources.
A now former Senate staffer who asked not to be identified told The News he witnessed the near attack and went to Aponte with a formal complaint and multiple followups, but nothing happened. He said he also discussed the situation with Mayer, who he felt “was the only one taking the complaint seriously.”
But Wittenwyler disagrees.
After getting no satisfaction for months with human resources, Wittenwyler said she sought out Mayer herself, and met with her in November 2010.
“I told her I’m frightened,” she said.
Mayer called HR, and days after their first meeting, Wittenwyler said Mayer called her “and told me not to fixate on what happened six months ago. She told me to hold my fire and keep records of everything personally.”
The Senate staffer said she followed up several times with Mayer. “Nothing happened,” she said.
At one point, she said she told Mayer, “This is why people don’t come forward.”